Otago Woman Flies Flag for NZDF in South Sudan

27 July 2018

Conflict-ridden South Sudan is a far cry from the bucolic sheep-and-cattle farm near Alexandra, Central Otago, where Lieutenant Colonel Lisa Kelliher grew up.

But for the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) officer South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation and on the brink of famine for the second consecutive year, has its own natural charm.


“South Sudan is a beautiful country, with the White Nile crossing through it and very fertile grounds flourishing like a huge, green blanket during the rainy season,” she said.


“Unfortunately, the beauty of the country is marred by the continuing violence and the signs of conflict are visible in many areas.”

Lieutenant Colonel Kelliher is serving as the Deputy Chief Force Headquarters Operational Plans Officer for the United Nations Mission (UNMISS) in the Republic of South Sudan. In her role she is involved in planning for contingencies, operational requirements and engagement across the different sections of the UN mission.


“It’s rewarding to be involved in all aspects of operations within the mission,” she said.


Since South Sudan’s civil war began nearly five years ago, about 300,000 people have died and more than a third of its 12 million people have been forced to flee their homes. About 1.2 million people are facing starvation as the continued fighting has plunged pockets of the country into famine for the second year in a row.


Although she finds the job rewarding, Lieutenant Colonel Kelliher said she had to adjust to the extremely challenging physical environment when she arrived in March for her seven-month tour.


“Heavy rain turns dirt roads into muddy rivers, and abets the spread of malaria and water-borne diseases. There are also snakes, scorpions and lots of insects to contend with.”


In her senior year at Dunstan High School in Alexandra, Lieutenant Colonel Kelliher applied to study accounting and mathematics at the University of Otago but a chance encounter with a classmate changed her mind.


“A classmate was on his way to sit a test to join the NZDF and asked me to come along. I thought, ‘Why not?’”


She enlisted in the New Zealand Army in 1993 and trained at the Australian Defence Force Academy and Royal Military College, at Duntroon in Canberra.


A Land Warfare Officer in the Royal New Zealand Army Logistics Regiment, she has served in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.


“When I joined the NZDF as a 17-year-old, I had not imagined the places we would get to go, the people across the world and around New Zealand who we would get to engage with, and the positive contribution we would be able to make to communities,” she said.


“There are so many opportunities across the Defence Force, on operations and in terms of training and education. Serving in the military is challenging, so you will never get bored.”

This page was last reviewed on 7 February 2019.